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Aug 06 2019

A Field Trip Through the Ruby Valley

Imagining a better future in one of Montana's wildest corners

Exploring Montana

At 8 a.m. on a warm Wednesday, the parking lot at the Alder Fire Hall is packed. Coolers are strapped to the flatbeds of the pickups, packed full of refreshments for the day ahead. Moving from the chilled shade of the hall, a group of about 30 circles into the warm sunshine of the late July morning around Rick Sandru.

Rick is a leader in Ruby Valley. He’s not just a rancher, he’s also the president of the Ruby Valley Stock Association, and a key member of the Ruby Valley Strategic Alliance (RVSA).

This morning, he keeps it brief, with a short thank-you to everyone who has taken the time to come out to the annual RVSA field day and a sketch of the day’s agenda. Rundown complete - we have to keep moving to stay on schedule and beat the forecast afternoon storms - the group piles into cars and trucks and rumbles off down the Upper Ruby Road towards our first stop of the day. 

The road traverses the thin strip of green that flanks the Ruby River as it cuts through the valley dividing the Gravelly Mountains and the Snowcrest Range. The Ruby flows from the peaks of the Snowcrests, which rise up to the west, emerald in the morning sun. Even in late July, small slivers of snow still cling to the peaks, which are lush from an unusually rainy summer, a patchwork of willows, sagebrush, conifers, and grasses in every shade of green. 

This landscape of rocky peaks, green valleys, and wide prairie is the home ground of the RVSA, a coalition of landowners, conservationists, business owners, and local officials that came together, in recognition of our shared values, to find creative new ways to conserve the spectacular landscape that we were driving through. 

On this day, the members of the Alliance are joined by staff from state and federal agencies, elected officials, journalists, rangeland specialists, and other folks who have, in one capacity or another, been involved with the RVSA through the years. They’ve assembled in Alder to see the accomplishments of the Alliance and to hear about new opportunities to protect the wildlands, watersheds, and historic ranching operations that help define this southwestern corner of Montana. 

After a few miles, the caravan parks and we pile out of the vehicles and began to climb through sagebrush, fir, and juniper. Looking back, the Snowcrests rise up on the other side of the valley. From our vantage point, we can nearly perfectly line up a historical photo from 1960. The change in the intervening 60 years is apparent. There’s a stark contrast between the expanse of grassland in the photo, and the clusters of juniper and other conifers that have taken residence since. Rick points to the sagebrush at our feet, sharing how the conifers and sagebrush limit forage and concentrate livestock and wildlife on the same paths, increasing their impact on the landscape. Members of the group also express some concern about how much water the junipers take from the Ruby River, winding along below. 

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Even in late July, small slivers of snow still cling to the peaks, which are lush from an unusually rainy summer, a patchwork of willows, sagebrush, conifers, and grasses in every shade of green.

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Neil Barnosky, a member of the RVSA, notes that we were standing in an early season pasture, and the cattle have already moved on. For the untrained eye, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish this pasture from ungrazed land. The ranchers of the RVSA take pride in the stewardship and care they give to their public grazing allotments. Many of these permittees have stewarded these allotments for generations and work hard to manage them responsibly. This care for the landscape is at the heart of the RVSA’s success. Ranchers and conservationists won’t agree on everything, but working together to preserve a healthy landscape is in everyone’s best interest.

The Ruby Valley Weed Cooperative is one example of how the community is addressing the ecological health of the Ruby Valley. With help from the Ruby Valley Conservation District, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, grant money from Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, and grant matches from local landowners, the Cooperative has received over $560,000 to address increasing levels of houndstongue, Canada thistle, and spotted knapweed in the Ruby River watershed. With the Forest Service’s ability to tackle similar problems constrained by a limited budget and incomplete staffing, these types of local partnerships are a critical part of ensuring that our public lands are getting the stewardship they so desperately need. 

Our next field trip stop takes us to the top of a hill with a breathtaking view of the Snowcrest recommended wilderness. As we look across the valley, we talk about the origin story of the RVSA. When the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act was proposed in 2009, local ranchers were concerned about the potential impacts the legislation could have on their livelihoods. After a lot of hard back-and-forth, the group came together to create the Snowcrest Agreement, which proposes 80,000 acres of new wilderness and a 20,000-acre special management area that specifically addresses grasslands restoration. 

The Snowcrest Agreement is an example of the type of solutions that can be developed through thoughtful - and often difficult - conversations. Ultimately, the Agreement will result in strong conservation protections that will preserve wilderness character while balancing the outdoor livelihoods that are intertwined with our wild places.

To ignore these livelihoods is to ignore the larger picture of conservation in the Ruby Valley. Ranchers help steward public allotments, and on the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest they’re also required to have “commensurate base properties”. That means that they must be able to prove that they have enough private land to feed their livestock for the remaining nine months of the year. These large private ranches keep land in agricultural production, keeping wildlife corridors free from development and providing ample winter habitat. Ultimately, that’s a better outcome than the development that would follow if the ranchers in the Ruby Valley were forced to sell their land.

At a final stop, we look at historical photos of several exclosures, trying to gauge the long-term impact that cattle have had on the landscape. The differences between the area grazed by wildlife alone and that grazed by both wildlife and livestock are difficult to spot. The ranchers describe how installing water structures and guiding cattle movements has changed behavioral patterns and reduced livestock impact on riparian areas. 

Like many days this summer, 4 p.m. brings angry purple thunderheads and flashes of lightning as a storm moves through the notch and comes our way. It’s hard to leave this beautiful meadow, though, so we stay a while longer, watching the oncoming storm and enjoying some drinks from the cooler. Finally the wind picks up and the rain starts spitting and we know it’s time to go back to Alder and head our separate ways, at least until next time.

- Emily Cleveland, senior field director

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